In Allah’s name
By Yahya López
Several years ago while attending an iftar dinner (fast breaking during the month of Ramadan) at the house of an acquaintance of a family member of mine, an incident occurred which was frankly quite profound in its very nature and, for me at least, showed a positive and inspiring glimpse of the future of Islam in America. The following is an account of that event.
The brother who had invited us to this iftar and almost all of the guests were immigrants from India or from Indian ancestry. My invitation there was a direct result of that very Indian connection. You see, my sister-in Law’s husband is an Indian from Tanzania. Both our families (wife’s and children), were therefore, requested to attended the iftar that night.
The men and women were separately herded into the preassigned basements of two adjacent, brick, raised ranch, single family homes of a quiet and predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the far northside of Chicago. This iftar had been a joint effort by these two Muslim friends and neighbors who were actually from the same city (Hyderabad) back home in India.
Following the Islamic tradition of the separation of the sexes in such events, my co-brother-in-law, his two boys, and I walked into one of the houses through a side entrance leaving behind us the freezing, bitter winter winds of this mid-January evening. My wife, sister-in-law, and daughter went to basement of the other house. Once inside the door threshold, we took off and carefully placed our shoes at the base of an already overflowing shoe mound that crowded the entrance way. If the size of the shoe pile was any indication, there had already arrived a large amount of guests.
We then descended down the soft and warm carpeted steps of a dimly lit, narrow corridor which led into the large basement apartment. As one penetrated deeper and deeper into the house one could not help but being allured, captivated, and, ultimately seduced, by the saturation levels of exotic and enticing aromas in the air. Whatever spice-filled, Indian delicacies our hosts had prepared for us, they were sure to stimulate and delight our eagerly awaiting taste buds and palates.
Although I knew the host and his neighbor, I felt somewhat apprehensive, self-conscious, and shy as I was entering the basement proper. But, is this not the case when one is being exposed to something new or unfamiliar? I remember thinking that I may not know anyone there. However, once I was submerged among the crowd, and after an initial scan of the surroundings, I found that I knew several people and some of the youth from my travels through the Chicago area masajids and centers in the northside. I noticed that many of them were somewhat surprised, yet genuinely pleased, to see me there. As we indigenous Muslims already have learned, our immigrant brethren are, for the most part, clannish and tribal in their relationships. They generally stay to themselves and look out for themselves. From my collective experience as a Muslim it seemed that in all these kind of events there is always a token non-immigrant Muslim or two. Whether intentional or not Allah knows best.
The basement apartment was actually a very large, open, living area decorated with modest furnishings. There was also the usual wall decors of surah’s and ayah’s from the Holy Qur’aan. The washroom and mechanical room were the only sectioned, or walled, off areas. I would say that fifty people could fit comfortably in this place. As is the natural tendency, many of the brothers there who were familiar with one another busily engaged in lively conversations of small, scattered groups throughout. The youth had also followed this unwritten law and had gathered among themselves. Within moments I shed some of my apprehensions and I then went about greeting and talking to those brothers I recognized.
The time to break the fast soon approached and the host, along with his ansars, began to prepare for the iftar. Blankets and/or plastic covers were placed down the center of the light colored, carpeted floor. Plastic cups, plates, forks and spoons were then lined up atop the covers. Shortly thereafter the fast breaking appetizers were brought into the room. In their wake, they left powerful columns of invisible, yet hypnotizing, scents that weakened our concentration and disrupted the train of thought of our conversations. We then were encouraged to gather around the savory tidbits and wait the call of adhaan which was imminent.
The teenage and young boys heeded the call to assemble, quickened their pace, and amassed themselves around the generous table spread. I imagine that the withholding from worldly appetites must be particularly hard on the youth because they may not fully grasp the inner dimensions, and many blessings and benefits, associated with this immensely important Islamic Pillar of faith. The men, on the other hand, were more self-conscious and deliberate in their response to the invitation.
It is the custom in our Muslim community that everyone first breaks the fast with dates, fruits, water, or other treats, after the adhaan is raised. Then, after indulging for a short while, we make the maghrib prayer. My two nephews, Zakariah (Zak) and Noor Muhammad, had sat on the floor next to me. Their father was still nearby speaking to an acquaintance of his. Across from us sat two young men whose dark complexioned faces were sporting long, black, well groomed beards. They were dressed in unbelievably brilliant white pajamas with black vests and they also had white kufi hat’s on. By their appearance, one could assume that they were two very dedicated Muslims.
The adhaan was finally raised and everyone instantly (as runners who react to the staring gun at a race) lowered their heads and began to indulge upon the goodies. After taking in a few bites himself, my nephew Noor stopped eating, turned to his brother Zak and innocently asked in a loud, nonchalant voice, “did you say bismillah?” We all know that children do not have that full grasp of shame and inhibitions as we adults do and, therefore, they will say the darnest things in the loudest of voices.
Apparently, Noor recalled that he had not said the bismillah, as he had been trained to do by his father, and wondered if his brother had not also. I am a witness that their father had worked tirelessly to engrain this very important requirement into their young minds. Meanwhile, his brother Zak confidently answered, “yeah”. Noor responded with a shortened,”oh,” then uttered his bismillah, lowered his head, and resumed chomping away at his treats. But, his brief, yet profound, query had set off a shock wave that had jolted and shaken all others around his diminutive epicenter.
The simple utterance by this thin, fifty pound lad was heard mostly by those who were sitting closest to him which would include myself. The hands of those who heard him became paralyzed and, as a result, they could not even lift another mouthful. All the grinding and pulverizing motions of our jaws quickly came to a screeching halt. His question had, in effect, taken most of us completely by surprise. We were not expecting such a reminder to come so boldly out of a small boy’s mouth. After all, that is something we constantly remind them off. Is it not? And so, at that very moment, I also stopped eating and recalled that I too had not mentioned Allah’s name over my food either. Inexplicably, I then looked up and caught noticed of the reaction of our neighbors. Many of us looked at each other and we instantly knew that all of us who were looking around had been guilty of the bismillah violation. It was one of those Kodak moments.
With expressions of wonderment and awe, they then turned their heavy heads and cast their bewildered eyes upon him as if this boy had just uttered the most profound, earth-shattering, prophetic truths ever heard by mankind. Everyone seemed to struggle and labor with what had just transpired. Yet, all the reactions I saw that day, I remember most those of the two young gentlemen in shinning white clothe across from me.
Upon hearing the words of Noor Muhammad, who himself had no idea of the magnitude of his comment, the two young men’s eyes opened wide as if they had just seen the apparition of the shaytan itself in front of them. They stopped grazing immediately and raised their heads simultaneously. At that time their collective cheeks were bulging at the seams with food stuffs. One of them actually had a couple of strands of the appetizers dangling out of the sides of his mouth. The look of total shock, abashment, discombobulation, and shame was splashed all over their terrified faces. It was as if they had been caught red-handed in the middle of a federal offense. Apparently, they had also forgotten and there was nowhere to hide. They realized that everyone else around knew they had forgotten as they knew we had also. The agony and disappointment was most visible and particularly excruciating for them because they seemed to be people who were careful with the practice of the deen.
It was evident that they began to struggle with how to react to this boy. On the one hand they appeared to be grateful by his reminder and, on the other hand, embarrassed by the fact that it took a boy to prompt them to comply with this supremely important commandment by the Law-Giver, Allah. The look in their eyes and their body language betrayed the fact that they were perfectly aware of the importance of this Islamic axiom. No doubt this was a feeling and emotion shared by all of us who had heard him.
Almost in concert they both said their bismillah and, along with many others nearby, added a complimentary chorus of “masha Allah’s” (kudos or pats in the back) acknowledging his profound remark. Noor looked up at them as if confused and not completely sure of the reasons for their recognition. He smiled at them and returned to the simple concerns of the life of a child. He was unaware that he had taught us all a very valuable lesson and that he had been the medium of Allah, Almighty’s sign to the rest of us.